Apart from the grand panoramic vista of Marine Drive and its distinctive art deco buildings (again under consideration for redevelopment much to the chagrin of conservationists), one of Mumbai’s iconic cinema images is of people in a chawl collected around a community tap.
Although other cities have similar conglomerations of people, the chawl is a peculiarly Mumbai staple, which found frequent expression in Hindi films too before it became infra dig to feature middle and lower class existence.
That image of people collected around a water tap represented one of Mumbai’s perennial problems – water shortages. Incidentally, this was not restricted to the underbelly of the city, but affected everybody, though the glossy films about would never deign to portray this!
In Mumbai, the last century and before that, it did not matter if you were rich, middle-class or poor, if you lived on Malabar Hill, in a chawl at Parel or in a Tardeo slum, you had to collect and store water.
Before moving to Bandra at the turn of the century, I have lived at Crawford Market, Jacob Circle, Napean Sea Road and Mahim at various times. Each locality has a distinct identity, but one thing was common: give or take a few litres, adequate water supply was always an issue.
Whenever you moved home, how good the water supply was the biggest influencer in making a decision. The sound of the gurgling and coughing of an open tap and that trickle of water that turns into a welcome rush was more melodious than the best symphonic orchestra.
Those who are 20-somethings or younger will not relate to this scenario, may even think it to be hogwash. But fact is, it is only very recently that Mumbai has managed to regularise its water supply with the implementation and completion of various projects.
However, as has now become agonizingly evident, three successive bad monsoons have taken their toll and the 20 per cent water cut that the municipal corporation started last October is still being imposed.
But the situation in Mumbai is nowhere near as horrifying as that in Marathwada, particularly Latur, where section 144 had to be applied recently to prevent a war over water breaking out between people driven to desperation.
Experts are terming this the worst drought in recorded history for the region. Water supply once in four days is a miserable reality for people of the region and despite that then they get a thin brown trickle.
The apathy of the political class makes the situation even more unbearable. Who can forget the diabolical insensitivity of NCP’s Ajit Pawar when as the deputy chief minister a few years ago he dismissed questions on water shortage by asking if he should urinate into a lake.
If climate change is showing us anything, it is that the urban-rural divide can no longer be maintained. We have to accept that we are all in the same boat, running the same risk of running aground.
In that sense, Mumbai is not different from Latur or any other place in interior Maharashtra. There has to be acute sensitivity about the drought situation in the
state and elsewhere in the country.
This means that awareness about what is happening in drought areas has to be increased, which should also compel us to review and amend our own ways of using and treating what is now a precious commodity.
Experts have laid out several plans for conserving water in Mumbai like rooftop rainwater harvesting to store water for apartment buildings and individual homes, using water in buckets instead of from showers when bathing, methods to cut down on leaks and pilfering etc.
These are hardly difficult to adopt as they are neither expensive nor involve any great hardship. Unfortunately, like so many such plans in India, they look perfect on paper and remain invisible on the ground.
Few are willing to shell out even meagre initial costs. The more problematic is the reluctance to make a lifestyle change. Most people with a rising disposable income want to leave their previous lifestyles behind. The well-to-do assume facilities are a right. Or want things done for them, rather than helping themselves.
These mindsets need to change.